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Researcher talks impact of women in East Tennessee settlement

Women played a larger role in East Tennessee history than many history books and road markers might suggest.


Associate Editor

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“When you get into history, you do not want to research what already has been done,” Casey Price, a Masters Degree student at East Tennessee State University (ETSU), told the year’s initial History Happy Hour audience on Thursday, March 21. His topic was “18th Century Resistance to State Formation in East Tennessee” with a theme that asserted the role of pioneer women has been neglected by historians.

The 25 persons who attended the lecture at the Chester Inn in Jonesborough received the fourth semester graduate student’s first explanation of a part of his thesis that he would defend at ETSU the following week.  The title of the thesis is “State Resistance: Gendered Spatial Construction Era in East Tennessee.”

The explanation of spatial, which is the nature of space, to Price involves the desire of frontier women to escape the English system of government in the 18th and early 19th centuries along with the legal doctrine of coverture.

Far more than the dictionary definition of the term as referring to the legal status of women, coverture said that upon marriage, a husband and wife were said to have acquired a unity of person that resulted in the husband having numerous rights over the property of his wife and in the wife being deprived of her power to enter into contracts or to bring lawsuits as an independent person. In the United States, these restrictions have now been abolished by various statutes.

The resistance to statehood was part of an original women’s rights movement that has long been ignored by Tennessee’s recognized pioneer historians including J. G. M. Ramsey and Samuel Cole Williams.  Price pointed out that these writers viewed history as “patriarchal” with the result that the role of men in American history is overemphasized.

A simple illustration was used as an example of this male gender bias. A Washington County Monument and a Tennessee Historical Markers read:  “Site of Cabin—Erected by William Bean – Russell Bean – First White Child Born on Tennessee Soil…” [the monument]  and “About 1 ½ miles to the east, on a knoll beside Boone’s Creek, a monument marks the spot where William Bean, first permanent white settler in Tennessee, built his cabin in 1769.  The site was previously used by Daniel Boone as a hunting camp.  Russell Bean, first child of permanent settlers, was born here” [the marker].

There is no mention of Bean’s wife Lydia in either the monument or marker despite the fact that the Bean family is traditionally regarded as the first permanent settlers in Tennessee.  They lived on Boone’s Creek where that stream flows into the Watauga River. In Price’s opinion, this marker needs to be reworded.

Lydia has an important role in pioneer history. She was taken captive and was to be killed by the Indians. However, an Indian woman named Nancy Ward was able to rescue her and get her back home to her family. As a Ghigau, Nancy had the power to spare captives. In 1776, following a Cherokee attack on the Fort Watauga settlement on the Watauga River (at present day Elizabethton, Tennessee), she used that power to spare Mrs. William (Lydia Russell) Bean.

Nancy took Lydia into her house and nursed her back to health from injuries suffered in the battle. Mrs. Bean taught Nancy how to weave, revolutionizing the Cherokee garments, which at the time were a combination of hides and cloth bought from traders. But this weaving revolution also changed the roles of women in the Cherokee society, as they took on the weaving and left men to do the planting, which had traditionally been a woman’s job.

In the graduate student’s presentation, the word “state” had an inclusive meaning that could range from references to colonies or a state.  In this respect, “men explore but women determine the settlement.”  Therefore, after individuals like the Long Hunters explored an area, they returned with their wives and children.  In this pattern, mothers and sisters along with other kinfolk also settled creating a society.

In East Tennessee this pattern of settlement resulted in unstructured county lines. Government was loosely said to be controlled from male officials living east of the mountains.  The need for more structured boundaries can be seen in Middle and West Tennessee where the institution of slavery demanded greater government control, Price said.

Examples of unstructured boundaries in East Tennessee can be illustrated by Peter Jefferson’s travels to the far reaches of Virginia where he stopped east of present day Elizabethton. Use of Peter’s information (he was the father of President Thomas Jefferson) could have resulted in parts of Carter County, Tennessee being in Virginia. Both east and west of Bristol in 1903, a United States Supreme Court commission found survey marks made with a hatchet. However, the commission never agreed to the location of the state line in downtown Bristol that divides Tennessee and Virginia. 

Not only did women determine the pattern of settlement in East Tennessee, they also provided economic stimulus to society. Once settled, women did not want to move. Cited by the lecturer as an example was the refusal of Rebecca Boone, the wife of Daniel Boone, to move to Florida. Instead the family moved to East Tennessee and then Kentucky. 

Probate records of estates illustrate the presence of spinning wheels as important family items along with agricultural tools. Price used the store of Thomas Amis in Hawkins County to illustrate the many transactions made by women, which often involved the use of barter rather than purchases by cash.

Home production of goods by women included agricultural goods, bee products and textiles. By 1810, there was a production of two million pounds of goods in public facilities in Appalachia in contrast to 26 million pounds of goods produced by women in private homes. These goods enabled men to purchase items such as gunpowder. The informal production techniques also avoided taxation.

A lively and interesting question and answer period followed Price’s talk. He indicated that he has found most pioneer settlers in East Tennessee were English with a minority of Scotch-Irish and Germans.  Authority for the statement, Price said, can be found in David Hsiung’s research on the settlement of the region. Price has a mother and sister with PhDs that he said explains, in part, why he has an interest in women’s history.

He also told the audience that he had been accepted into a doctoral program at the University of Tennessee.  Hopefully, Price and other students can spark a revival of history instruction in American education. A recent review of American history from colonial times onward titled “How to Hide an Empire” in the Wall Street Journal read: “American history is in trouble – the discipline that is. The share of college students who major in history has fallen by two-thirds since the early 1970s.”

The importance of teaching history in our nation’s schools was emphasized near the end of the review with the statement, “The author (Daniel Immerwahr) implores us to see the U.S. ‘not as it appears in its fantasies, but as it actually is.’”